Guyana Resource Center
Set like a gem in the crown of South America, nestled on the North-Eastern shoulder, defying the raging Atlantic Ocean, Guyana's many waterways reflect the source of it's name "The Land of Many Waters"
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Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Funds for disaster preparedness

Government has announced that it is to seek international assistance to repair crucial drainage structures and dredge four rivers. This comes in the wake of the declaration of two severely flooded areas as disaster zones. The two areas are Region Two (Pomeroon catchment area) and Region Five (Mahaica/Berbice). This is a bold step as the previous attempt last year to seek international funds for flood disaster ended in failure. However, the current approach appears to be better conceived.

Almost a year to the day the UN, had launched in February 2005 what was described as a Flash Appeal for 3 million US dollars for Immediate Relief Needs and Humanitarian Transitional Needs in Guyana. In its appeal document the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that 2005 was the largest disaster to hit Guyana in the last century. The situation was described in great detail - 200,000 people affected (39% of the population), 5000 in temporary shelters, 92,000 people with water in their homes and so on. But the appeal fell on deaf ears. It was reported that the sum contributed was only about 10% little more than US $300,000, but this was never confirmed.

The reasons for the failure must be analysed. First there was donor fatigue in the field of humanitarian assistance. And Guyana was a very small case in the year which included the tsunami. But there were also failures on the Guyana side. There was a certain lack of clarity. The Guyana government never made it clear what they were confronting, whether it was so to speak a "regular" occasional flooding disaster or the result of a massive climate change deluge. The latter would have attracted more attention. Moreover it appears that the appeal was not specifically supported by Guyana's diplomacy . Editorially it had been suggested at that time that there should be special approaches to certain Middle Eastern States, especially in view of the fact that Guyana is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries.

This time around the appeal while apparently coordinated by the UN is apparently directed inter alia to specific aid agencies. More importantly, the appeal is for infrastructural works and a distinction is being made between the medium and longer term. Still it is not clear that sufficient is being done in terms of image to attract assistance on the scale which Guyana will eventually require.

It is considered that on the projection of Guyana's special needs salience should be given to the following points. First, there must be clear recognition that Guyana's problem is part of the worldwide cycle of damage now being inflicted on human communities by climate change. Last year Katrina pierced the levels of denial or lack of interest at the highest levels in the US government, henceforth climate change is on the agenda.

During the year there were an increasing number and more intense hurricanes and typhoons than there had been for 75 years. The year was the hottest ever recorded. There were devastating floods in Africa and Asia. Drought and floods are becoming part of the uncertain weather pattern of sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, Australia and in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Moreover, the rapidly melting ice caps accelerated sea level rise threatening island states, low lying countries like Bangladesh and of course the Guyana coastland. Guyana, although not yet gravely affected, must be seen to be in this pattern of climate dislocation and destruction.

Second, it must be shown that the flooding disasters are destroying the levels of development which over the years have been painstakingly achieved and that in consequence resources are being diverted and growth is being negatived.

Again this is part of a worldwide pattern. Scientists meeting in the UK in February 2003 in an International Symposium on Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change asserted that the damage inflicted on Africa by climate change could greatly exceed the increased quantum of economic assistance being given. An even more dire prediction is the calculation by some scientists quoted by Oxfam that the costs associated with overcoming climate change disasters could exceed global economic output within a few generations. In short the global economy would cease to grow. Guyana should be projected as a small state endeavouring to mitigate climate change impacts so that it can maintain current levels of development and can continue to grow.

Third, one must ensure that the concern with the medium term e.g. dredging of rivers and repair of conservancies and so on does not slip into a piecemeal approach but is seen to support comprehensive long term planning. In this longer term it is imperative that attention be given to sea level rise which is already affecting the sea defences. Where the climate change leading to heavy incessant rainfall could not have been predicted sea level rise can be measured and its effects predicted long in advance. Such precise predictions were available as long as 16 years ago in the R.F. Camacho's report on "The implication of sea level rise for the coastlands of Guyana". Since then scientists have observed that with ice caps subject to more than anticipated melting, sea level rise is being accelerated.

The Commonwealth Report on Climate Change which incorporates Camacho's findings points out that sea level rise is complicated by the fact that "affected societies - dependent on their resources - have choices.

They can retreat, accept the losses and adapt to changed circumstances or they can erect sea defences and/or design (or strengthen) structures to face a higher sea level." In the case of Guyana Camacho concluded that without a long term - 30 to 40 year-programme (16 years have now gone) for raising and strengthening coastal protection and improved drainage there could be a serious loss of agricultural land, agri-industry, housing and infrastructure. He outlined a phased programme, the first phase costing US $22 million over five years (estimates made in 1988).

Camacho's study underlined two key points of importance: "The first is that anticipatory planning and a staged programme of works accompanied by continued monitoring and feasibility analysis are much preferable both to doing nothing and suffering the costs of flooding - or to belated, once for all construction projects. Second, it is possible, using local experience and expertise in constructing sea defences and drainage systems, to improvise relatively inexpensive but effective protection."

Sea level rise needs to be taken seriously as what is at stake is a problem of territorial integrity, every bit as serious as the claims of neighbours - perhaps moreso because what will be lost is the economic heartland of Guyana.

As with the problems of preserving Guyana's territorial integrity, the mobilising of resources and international opinion will require well conceived and focused diplomatic effort. And as with the earlier diplomatic campaign it is most likely that Guyana will gain the support it requires for its own projects if it is seen to be in vanguard of the diplomacy on climate change. In view of the devastation which Caricom partner states suffer from hurricanes and flooding it should be possible to develop co-ordinated foreign policy approaches.

It is certain that there are new funding opportunities opening up within the context of the Kyoto Protocol which is now operational and to which Guyana adheres. This is also true of the raft of agreements entered into by the 200 countries who participated at the Montreal Conference last November which is starting to shape a second stage to Kyoto. In all such approaches to donors it will almost certainly be found that donors will be most responsive to a long term plan.

The aim should be to project to donors an image of Guyana as a small state valiantly and efficiently tackling climate change problems which threaten its survival and which are not of its own making.

The historian Rodway in his history of British Guiana wrote: "Every acre at present under cultivation has been the scene of a struggle with the seas in front and the flood behind. As a result of this arduous labour through two centuries a narrow strip of land along the coast has been rescued from the mangrove swamp by an elaborate system of dams and dykes."

The struggle must now be resumed and in earnest.

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